Nanotechnology: What’s in a name? Part 1

Correction: It appears the term “nanotechnology” was first used by Norio Taniguchi in 1974, not Eric Drexler. However, Drexler certainly popularised the use of the word.


The soft machines blog this week brings up an old debate between opposing views of nanotechnology. To summarize, there is a small but influential number of scientists who believe that the true potential of nanotechnology lies in ultra miniaturisation of everyday manufacturing capabilities. For example, individual atoms or molecules moved and an assembled to build fantastic new materials and machines (known as molecular manufacturing).

This view was originally championed by Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation in the mid 80’s, where he coined the term nanotechnology to describe his ideas. The opposing view is that the properties of materials on the nanoscale, and the way these properties can be tuned for industrial applications, are of huge scientific interest and more immediate technological importance. The majority of nanoscience research falls into the second category, and many are skeptical about whether the first is even possible.

Both camps use the term nanotechnology, but they describe rather different things. The molecular manufacturing lobby argue that the term has been misappropriated by scientists in other fields, jumping onto the nanotech funding bandwagon and diverting money from molecular manufacturing research.

There are technical arguments between the two groups, which I’ll come to another time, but for now I’m interested in public perception. It’s impossible to enforce restrictions on the use of the term now. No matter how the word nanotechnology is defined in legal or technical terms, people will understand and use it in different ways; it’s the nature of language that no one person owns the word.

Isn’t it important, given the public and political interest in nanotechnology, that we know what we’re talking about?

To be continued…. In the meantime, here’s a video of a proposed scheme for molecular manufacturing

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2 Comments on “Nanotechnology: What’s in a name? Part 1”

  1. Hi there, just a quick note that according to all my information Norio Taniguchi (a Japanese engineer) coined the term nanotechnology (in 1974), despite what Richard Jones wrote in his blog. As far as I’m aware, Drexler has never claimed to have coined the term. You can check Wikipedia and many other sources to confirm Taniguchi.

    • jjjhayton Says:

      Thanks, I didn’t know that! Anyway the point is that Drexler certainly popularised the word, taking it to mean his vision of molecular manufacturing, but it has come to have different meanings over time, which causes some confusion when nanotechnology is reported in the media, and this trickles through to affect public understanding. I’ll post more on this next week, thanks for reading!

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